Star Trek:Battle for Alpha Quadrant (ver 2.0) (Dan Silverwing review)
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Revision as of 21:28, 26 April 2011
Overall Score: 20/30
Ever since Paul Heron made his Star Trek Universe mod-pack (four years ago!), it set a yardstick standard which Star Trek scenarios have been falling short of ever since. Happily this one is head and shoulders above the norm, with good graphics and good, if imperfect, playability. The tech tree is well done, if imperfect in structure, and overall the atmosphere is well generated. I found it engrossing playing, even as I was trying to critique it.
To firstly set the scene, this scenario is based on a large 75x120 map, the starting positions are evenly spread around, and the planets are individual squares but strung along to create systems. You can typically have four decent cities on the larger clusters. You start at the beginning, with one 'size 3' city and one military unit and must develop from there. Roads and railroads can be built to cover a string, and the planets can be both improved and easily transformed into other types by both irrigating/mining and transforming methods.
Although you can choose between three of the major Star Trek races, this is not a classical Birth of the Federation scenario. The presence of the Borg from the start rather determines gameplay, so you don't have the luxury of time to settle space peacefully until your borders meet with a rival's; instead your focus from the start must be on researching military technologies and building military units if you are to stand a chance of winning, developing civil technologies and improvements only on a need to basis.
Starting from scratch there is a lot to do - everything you'd normally do in founding an empire: found cities, defend them, develop new technologies, build improvements and grow huge cities, then go rampaging.
There are five objective cities which must be captured for a decisive victory, two of which are Borg, and the others the homeworlds of the major races. There is a "story" coded in via the events.txt, which helps focus on the game goal: defeat the Borg.
Level of General Care: 7/10
Trading with another race might be a good idea, except that early starships are proportionally slow, representing more primitive propulsion technologies. In fact for the one transport type in the game, you don't even need Warp drive to research it, and the speed does not increase with this. This also affects expansion, especially for the other races who will settle their own systems adequately, and use engineers to improve the planets, but not expand very far beyond this. Although oddly I found that the races which were neutral in expansion settled more than those with +1 expansion attributes. Instead of having large empires of 20+ cities to manage, the computer will be hard pressed to get five by the time you ready to expand, which means you can easily surpass the other races in production and research, and then overwhelm the home systems. Perhaps this is because there is an excess of land masses, suggesting the solution would be to either reduce these to no more than 64 or make the strings of planets longer, allowing more cities to be founded. An excess of 64 land masses may also explain other AI imperfections.
Exploration can be a bit tricky. Probes have a good long range and 2 square visibility, and as air units can be carried on naval ships which aren't cloaked and can deploy torpedos, the best thing is to build probes to explore the immediate environs, and then deploy them on a ship to explore further afield, and reveal much more space than the ship alone could. Once you've played one game and found where everything is though, this challenge is lost. It's a problem inherent in this kind of game: have variable starting positions and you can't predetermine race-specific technologies; have fixed starting positions and you lose that uncertainty. Perhaps the solution to this would be to use the givetechnology event in turn 1.
The race-specific technologies aren't that race-specific. Instead of having technologies to make other units obsolete you have base technologies which are needed to develop more race specific [sic] technologies and wonders. The conceptual idea is that eventually you should have access to the other race's technologies (which can happen quite quickly if you target the necessary prerequisite), but there is no reason why both types can't be incorporated to keep a player's fleet homogenous at least. As it is, you can develop all the other races designs and mix and match to get the best out of them. I was disappointed that the ability to take technologies from captured cities had been removed in the scenario parameters. A good idea considering that Borg technology will destroy you, and it stops the computer doing anything stupid, but bad for you re the others. After all, you can trade for them and steal them, why not conquer them?
The technology tree is relatively "open", i.e. you don't have rigidly defined epochs or tightly intertwined development, and so you can target specific technologies you want to develop and reach them quite quickly. Or concentrate on ground units, and just keep researching those technologies until you have a unit which is so far in excess of the others' that victory is assured, which you then build en masse.
The technologies are claimed to be ST canon, which I can't dispute. For a layman they are barely familiar and so the civilopedia is really needed here to plan things out. If you start over knowing what is what, you can exploit the openness to target specific technologies. In the pedia.txt itself, all the improvements and wonders used have updated texts. For FW you don't benefit from the terrain section, and so I still found it helpful to have the rules.txt open to study terrain attributes. The game and label text files have been updated to create a definite "atmosphere", though a very elementary mistake has been made with the advice.txt: the @@name needs to match the entry in the rules.txt, so we just have the "we should build x" message.
WEAPONS OF WAR:
As you might expect, units are mainly either ground or naval units. There is an impressive diversity of ground units, and the tech tree allows for ever more powerful units to be built. Similarly with the naval units, starting with the most basic, weakest and slowest. Attack and defence strengths are well balanced in relation to other units of the same domain, though not the other. Naval units are quite weak on the attack compared to the defence strength of some ground units, and this warns against direct shore bombardment. A decent ground unit protected by Planetary shields (Costal defences) and Orbital Platforms (City Walls) can ward off most attacks, and the player can play defensively if he wishes. Some early naval units are hardly worth bothering with, and I was disappointed that some generic naval units were better value than race-specific ones.
It is obvious that the designer wants us to use torpedos as the ships offensive weapons, rather than the ship itself, and the good side of this is that you can simply overload one ship with probes and torpedos to go borg hunting, rather than a massive fleet of startships. The downside is that the torpedos can't be reused, they're expensive to build, difficult to transport for resupply, and cost the same in support as a starship. I prefer the conventional method, yet as mentioned the starships' A/D/M values are too pitiful, and hit points and firepower remain very basic for a long time. Transportation is also unbalanced: you can build transports early on, but you can never upgrade them to a faster design. It makes the development of "Null Space Catapults" (Airports) much more attractive, but I feel that simply airlifting units around the map can be exploited to the point where it should be considered cheating, though in fairness the computer makes good use of these itself. The tactic is, put an engineer on a transport, establish a forward base city, rush build an airport and start sending in reinforcements preparatory to an invasion. When on the offence it is far more economical just to use ground units, with say one ship and a couple of probes to spot and avoid trouble. Though the units do improve in stats, the early ones don't become obsolete because obsolescence is needed to stop the Borg building them (as if the computer would even contemplate such inferior designs) - and stop non-Borg players building Borg units, and so the computer won't automatically disband and upgrade the earlier units, which makes them easy targets. Some experimentation is called for: either let the computer have free choice, or keep the Borg from researching those technologies.
The Borg play by different standards . They have their own units, which are much more powerful, and defeating them can be problematic. Though it is fairly common to see the odd Borg Cube rampaging around the map, at much faster speeds than your own ships, it is rarer to be invaded, which makes it all so pointless. This is the first time I've seen a "can carry:16" unit, and I'm not sure the computer is using them properly, even though the role is clearly transport. Perhaps a better division between attack and transport ships is needed, or more moderate values. The cost is also way too high (40) considering the AI Borg starts out in an undeveloped state. So they'll attack and withdraw quickly when damaged, and though you might suffer one city losing all of its military units at least you won't lose the city. There is a second events.txt, the "no-win" option, which makes the Borg more potent, but there is a problem in balancing the game difficulty. The computer is not very expansionist, so you can surpass them and go on to winning quite easily once you know what you're doing. Playing on a harder difficulty makes it harder initially, but doesn't alter this tendency, and having a "no-win" events makes the game a choice between assured eventual victory or crushing defeat.
Art + Originality: 5/10
In these scenarios there is usually a tendency towards a Federation bias for units and graphics. While here the people and technology graphics are generic, the Federation are still over-represented in starships (IMO). The Klingons have a nice progression in starships, with types to match federation capabilities at every stage, but the Romulans are treated as poor relations, with no interim types between early and advanced. Though it might be considered impressive to have a big range of different designs, most of the early ones are pretty worthless. The pace of technological development can quickly render one type obsolete, so why bother even building one? Plus, as mentioned above, you can develop other races' designs and build the best types depending on the role you want them to have. I think a better solution would be to restrict each side to no more than 4 warships, this way freeing up extra unit slots and allowing more than 3 of the major races to be used. Hands up all those who'd like to see the Cardassians.
Graphically, the author deserves credit for making his own very neat starship graphics. I say "neat" because although from scanned sources they have been meticulously cleaned up and look very agreeable. No black borders or anything. I'm particularly impressed with the borg units, which elsewhere are usually very dark and hard to distinguish from background space. Here they are quite light for contrast, and work just as well. The rest is a worthy compilation of previously available sources, and some I hadn't seen before. There's nothing terribly original about Star Trek scenarios per se, and a lot of what is here we've seen before. The only innovation for this genre has been a determination to use missiles and scouting air units as a central instrument. As a base, the scenario has great potential to become even better...
There is room for improvement, with the ships and technologies, and hopefully an attempt to aid the AI. I would like to have seen more than three major races, and with their own specific people graphics to match, and perhaps unique city icons also. The technology icons, though it's nice to have them, have been done before and better by clearly depicting an evolution through the advancing epochs (if epochs are irrelevant, why have them set in the rules.txt?). If not epochs, then why not race specific? Since you start out pre-warp, I felt that Warp drive technology would have been better used in the NP slot, so improving the transports speeds. After all, the author demonstrates a clear understanding of the tech slot associations but does not make full use of them. The sounds are also well done, with clear understanding of unit sound associations. The only criticism is that more could have been done, especially for the Borg, and for use in events. As it is they're perfectly tolerable; just rudimentary and unexciting.